I sing to the children across a field of lacy white flowers, harvesting caraway in my apron: “Pockets full of caraway, ovens full of rye. Knead and eat your cares away, until it’s time to die.”
They look at me disdainfully, sluggishly yank a handful of weeds, hold them out to me. “That’s not caraway,” I say, inspecting the half-dead stalks. The girl shrugs, drops them to the ground while the boy watches, a finger picking at his ear. “Don’t you want to help me make bread when we get home?” I ask, hoping the promise of a crisp loaf will tantalize their taste buds, tame their tempers.
“We don’t like bread,” comes a defiant voice. “We like sweets!” They flee over the hill, leaving me to finish the harvesting alone. They do like their sweets, I think, remembering how many times I have pulled them from the bakery window in town, their hot breath fogging up the glass, obscuring the treasures within: confections, doughs, delights their mother knew how to bake. I follow their laughter through the fields until we reach home.
“Mother always baked us sweets,” the girl bemoans, looking at the dark oats on the table.
“You’ll have to teach me how,” I say, pulling out a wooden bowl.
“That’s not how it works,” the boy pipes up. “You’re supposed to teach us!” He swipes an errant finger through the flour, shoves it in his mouth, and coughs a dry puff.
“No one ever taught me how to make sweets. All I can bake is bread. Wouldn’t you like a nice rye loaf?” They roll their eyes and rush out of the hut, leaving a trail of dusty footprints across my clean floor. I knead the dough, the heel of my hand stretching and pressing into the sticky paste until it smoothes into a silky ball. Satisfied, I let it rise, knowing the wait is worth the promise of the dough.
She comes to me in a dream, a crown of spun sugar, a milky gauze covering her face. She casts her hands over the children, asleep on the floor in the straw. It is then I see the glint of metal on her finger, a ring more precious than the tin that pinches me. She smells of yeast and dead leaves, of chocolate and blood.
“Mine,” a voice whispers in my head, claggy and deep. “Let them come to me.”
The children balk at my bread. They stare at the thin slices on their plates, a sliver of butter smeared across. They poke at it, as if testing the proof, examining my work. “It smells funny,” says the girl, nose crinkling.
“That’s the caraway,” I reply, chewing my own slice carefully, hoping they will mime me. “Remember when we picked those flowers in the field near the crossroads? I used them to spice the bread.”
“We’re eating flowers?” the boy asks, disgust coating his tongue.
“Mama used to make us flowers from marzipan. Do you know what that is?” the girl asks.
I swallow and shake my head. The rye loaf squats on the table between us, sad and misshapen. Their father says nothing.
“It’s delicious. It’s made of almonds.”
“And sugar,” her brother offers.
“And she’d carve the most lovely shapes for us – flowers and vines and cherries that we’d wear tucked behind our ears like jewelry.” She smoothes her hair, primps and preens.
“You can do that with real cherries too. We’ll pick some next summer. Maybe you can help me make jam.”
The girl slumps back in her chair, legs swinging beneath the table. “It’s not the same.”
It is only then I realize how much she reminds me of my sister. I imagine her foot trampling on the loaf as if it were a stepping stone in a river – the bread crumpling, crumbling beneath the weight of her. I cannot bear it. I remove the rye from the table, wrap it carefully in a tea cloth. Outside, they cannot see my tears as I unpin the laundry, fold it until it is too dark to see what I am doing. When I come back, the children are asleep and I am grateful for the silence.
“I could take a position in town,” I whisper to him. “I can mend or clean. Perhaps the bakery needs a good bread maker.”
“The town is too far to go to each day and return each night,” he rationalizes. It is a long way – too far to walk, and he needs the horse to carry wood from the forest. “We could sell the children. The boy would make a good sweep or stableboy; the girl could learn to cook.”
“Sell the children?” I ask, a knot swelling in my stomach. I glance at their sleeping forms, tawny hair askew. “They are your children, but to sell them…” I think back to the dream, the metal ring that matches his. “She wants them,” I manage.
“Who?” he asks with a yawn.
“Your wife. She came to me in a dream. She wants the children to come live with her.”
“My wife is dead.”
“She came to me, spoke to me. She is in the forest. We’ll send the children to her. If she is not there, if it’s all a lie, they’ll return to us – and we’ll start anew.”
He is silent for so long, I fear he has fallen asleep before hearing my plan. I am about to give up, to roll over, when I hear him sigh. “I’ll take them to the forest in the morning.”
The knot unravels. I sleep dreamlessly, wake rested.
In the morning, I pin mint to their coats for warmth, tuck a sprig of rosemary in their pockets for protection. Wrapping a fresh loaf in a cloth, I hand it to the girl, who accepts it begrudgingly. For a long time I watch them from the doorway, the boy trailing behind her as they wind their way towards the woods.
This story was previously published in From the Farther Trees in February 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Shelly Jones (she/they) is a Professor of English at a small college in upstate New York, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in Podcastle, New Myths, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @shellyjansen.